2nd reading
Friday 10th September 2021

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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My Lords, I too commend my noble friend Lord Hendy on bringing forward this Bill, on his excellent introductory speech, on the very accessible briefing that he provided to us all in advance, which I found really valuable, and consequently on providing the opportunity to debate this important issue. I am pleased to stand here able to say that every speaker before me, from all sides of the House, has supported this Bill. It urges me to remind the Minister that in 1998, when I came into Parliament, the Conservative Party was on the wrong side of history on the national minimum wage and kept me up all night on many occasions trying to defend the indefensible. I urge him not to get on the wrong side of history on this and have his Government tarred with that brush, because at some point in the relatively near future they will have to backtrack, as they have done already.

Perhaps my noble friend Lord Hendy would not have had to do this had Theresa May not lost office before she was able to fulfil her Government’s commitment of 2018 to legislate in this area, or if Boris Johnson had not broken his promise to bring forward an employment Bill, set out in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech, no less. Clearly, the Government understand this problem and the implications of it for millions of hard-working people. Why else would they have set out plans in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech to introduce an employment Bill, among other things, to tackle it? Instead, they chose to leave workers’ rights behind, not only by leaving this out of the most recent Queen’s Speech but by backtracking altogether, with the Minister outlining the Government’s new belief, as my noble friend Lady Donaghy said, that the current system

“provides the right balance for the UK labour market”.

The experience of the most important element of that market, the labourers, is that this is not true. If the Minister intends to deploy this argument in a response of resistance to my noble friend’s elegant solution, please will he not just reassert it but direct us to the evidence that supports it. It is directly contrary to the reasoned analysis, conclusions and recommendations of the Taylor review, published in 2017, and the consultation on employment status, run in 2018, which in turn led to the May Government’s commitments.

Like other noble Lords, I am grateful for the briefings that I received from the Library, the IER and the TUC, not to mention from my noble friend Lord Hendy. They are redolent with evidence of injustice and potential and actual abuse, which demands redress. In the current context, if the pandemic has taught us one lesson, it is the importance to well-being, to productivity and consequently to the economy of people feeling safe, secure, and valued in their work. My noble friend made this very point, but with respect, it was expressed better by Andy McDonald, who in July wrote:

“Millions of workers have had no access to statutory sick pay, both worsening the impact of the pandemic and exacerbating financial insecurity. In-work poverty is the highest it has been this century, with one in six working families on the poverty line. Approximately 3.6 million people are in insecure work, meaning they don’t know when they will work or how much they will earn … Throughout the pandemic, the devastating consequences of unsafe working conditions, financial insecurity and the lack of a strong worker voice have made the need for urgent change clear.”

However, the pandemic has also seen us adapting to new flexible ways of working. I accept that we need a system which allows this flexibility. None of us is arguing against that. As other noble Lords have made clear, the Labour Party supports the creation of a single status of worker, to ensure that all workers receive the rights and protections that Parliament has said that employees should have. My noble friend’s Bill offers a solution that is entirely consistent with that ambition. I fully support it. I have no doubt that in its later stages there will be debate about the finer details. I look forward to further education on those details. If we can get this Bill right, which we should be able to do, many fewer people will have an experience of work that is challenging to their well-being, mental health and productivity, and consequently, to our economy.